To tell you a story, a person will usually write it down and then read it to you. With games, the story is written down, then given to the player to read. If the developer has given the player the right "tools", they can tell an amazing story through the game. Storyteller reviews look at this narrative partnership between developer and player, and assess how well the game succeeds as a storytelling engine.
For today's review, it's the latest from Naughty Dog, who are bringing back the magic of classic Spielberg adventure with their Uncharted series.
Uncharted 3 takes you all over the world (like a classic adventure should), and the environments are incredibly immersive. I recommend checking out the featurettes on the detail and research they did for the game. You could take a screenshot at any angle or place, and it would always look like a real location, thanks to the detail in every corner. When exploring an area, I found myself moving the camera around Nate to get the best looking "shot". Experimenting with the camera was especially effective in one of the later chapters, where the hero is aimlessly wandering the desert. Thankfully, in the more action-heavy sequences, the game takes charge of the camera to heighten the drama, and to make sure you can focus on the character's movements without getting disoriented.
In the behind-the-scenes featurette, the developers explain how they use real actors as a reference for the animation, but don't use full on mo-cap and facial mapping. This approach has worked wonders for the animated sequences in the game - the characters interact realistically, and don't look like strange facsimiles of the actors bodies and faces. The characters also never "vacate" the story when it's time for the player to work out a puzzle, or face a dangerous situation - they are always offering advice, shouting in frustration or calling out to each other. This is a game that doesn't divide itself between gameplay and story sections - everything you do in the game is happening to Nate, Sully, Elena and the others as well.
The game keeps information out of your face as much as possible, keeping the player focused on the scenes taking place. Hand-to-hand combat favours cinematic flair over challenge - I found it more fun to watch than the gunplay. Brawling allows for experimentation and creativity within the environment. Knocking an opponent out with a fish, for example, felt far more satisfying then firing a grenade into someone's face, for it only to knock their helmet off.
While exploring, the game helps you along as much as you'll let it, without breaking the immersion too much. Your travelling companions will hint at solutions, and there is an option to have the game simply tell you the solution if you are stuck long enough. The climbing sections are always surprising and creative, and comprise some of the most exciting moments in the game. Ledges you can jump to are designed to "stand out", which is handy for the player, but the "highlighting" of the correct path does hurt the game's immersion a little. Seeing the path laid out for you so conspicuously is a bit like being able to see the "X"'s taped to the floor of a movie set, where the actors need to stand.
Compared to other game genres, action/adventure has a much less complicated range of actions for the player to perform - shoot, jump, run, climb. There is no branching dialogue or moral decisions to muddle the character of Nathan Drake. Like the previous game, I found that the player's skill at gunplay does have an effect on their "portrayal" of Drake - if you're terrible at it like me, with Drake missing most of his shots, it feels like the player doesn't live up to the expectation that Drake can handle himself in a firefight.
On the other hand, if you're REALLY good at shooting, and play Drake as an efficient killer, it doesn't quite mesh with his lovable, underdog adventure hero attitude. Sometimes the combination of badass and charming action hero doesn't quie mesh. Even so, I can't fault Naughty Dog for trying to combine hero archetypes into something new.
The story is ever-present in Uncharted 3. This series earns it's mantle of "cinematic" gameplay not only for it's high production values and mastery of genre conventions - it's also a game that makes the player feel like the director of the story, quite effortlessly. The developers put some distance between you and the main character, letting you direct the story around him in exciting ways. The effectiveness of the "scene" is paramount - in a barfight, the player doesn't have to worry about blocking - they can look at the whole scene, pick up a bottle, and discover that Nathan Drake isn't all charm - he can also fight dirty.
The game is linear, but at every stage, Naughty Dog lays out all the tools needed to create an exciting action sequence. Shooting a gas tank, pulling an unsuspecting guard over a cliff, or leaping onto truck from horseback - all of these moments and more have been designed with the player's understanding of action movies in mind. But for the most part it's up to the player to use these tools however they like.
The icing on the cake is that there is a real character acting out these decisions - the game feels less like old-school wish fulfillment (YOU are Nathan Drake!), and more like you are directing the scene yourself. True cinematic games don't just look cinematic - they let you play with cinematic ideas directly.
Uncharted 3 is an excellent storytelling engine for the action/adventure genre. It sits in a comfortable, well-worn part of the entertainment industry and celebrates what makes the genre great, not only through it's polished Hollywood presentation, but it's cinematic approach to gameplay.